Danger Zone: Niagara Falls Boulevard ‘is as bad as anything we have’

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Mike Monaco had a sinking feeling in his stomach that something happened to his sister when he got the Aug. 9, 2013, phone call from Tonawanda police.

Lisa Monaco had left a convenience store at 5:10 a.m. to catch a bus near Willowridge Drive when she was fatally struck by a car. She was a few steps away from reaching the curb.

“I’m by myself, so it’s very hard – very hard – to cope with,” said her brother, Mike Monaco.

Since 2001, at least 11 pedestrians have been killed or seriously injured on a 3-mile stretch of the boulevard separating the towns of Amherst and Tonawanda. That staggering number does not include fatal car crashes – data that the state Department of Transportation has refused to release since News 4 Investigates asked for it in May through a Freedom of Information law request.

Residents, elected officials and business owners say there’s a lot to fix to make the boulevard safer.

Faded crosswalks. Bus stops in locations without crosswalks. Confusing crossing signals. Poor road lighting. No middle medians. Pedestrians recklessly crossing in unmarked spots. Too high of a speed limit. Poor snow removal on sidewalks.

“This stretch of road is as bad as anything we have,” said Brian Kulpa, the supervisor for the Town of Amherst.

Officials in Tonawanda and Amherst are studying options, and said new road lighting should be installed by next winter.

State transportation officials said they will do a comprehensive safety study of the boulevard that will include a pedestrian safety action plan. But a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation took exception to any criticism that the agency is not doing enough.

“It’s not that Niagara Falls Boulevard has never been studied in the past,” said Susan Surdej, spokeswoman for DOT.

“This is a more comprehensive study being done by a consultant. We have worked diligently along Niagara Falls Boulevard from an engineering perspective, and this just further enhances the work that’s already been done.”

Surdej said that work includes improved visibility at crosswalks, new curb ramps and pavement markings, and upgraded countdown timers with more time to cross.

Monaco said the boulevard was engineered to move cars without much attention paid to pedestrians, despite it splitting dense residential neighborhoods, such as Parkview and Green Acres North, behind the both sides of the commercial strips. 

“A lot of these things should have been done a long time ago prior to anybody’s death here,” Monaco said.

Main Street

This isn’t Kulpa’s first rodeo trying to solve traffic problems.

His urban planning background came in handy as the mayor of Williamsville, where he helped spearhead a traffic-calming initiative on Route 5 through the village, another busy road with a lot of foot traffic.

He sees something similar happening with Niagara Falls Boulevard, which averages more than 35,000 vehicles a day.

“What people don’t understand is this is a Main Street for neighboring communities,” he said in front of Checkers off the boulevard, the scene of a pedestrian fatality in 2016 and crash that seriously injured an employee crossing the street in 2017.

“This is like Main Street in Williamsville, or Delaware in Kenmore. We have high density populations that rely on this, it’s their laundromat, it’s their car service place, it’s their restaurant, it’s their barber shops, right here on the main drag.”

“But we treat it as the big regional arterial where we want to move traffic and it looks like a highway.”

Better lighting above the boulevard is the only safety measure that both the towns of Amherst and Tonawanda can do without the state DOT. Elected officials in both towns have agreed that they will move forward with a lighting project.

Anything done to the road itself needs to go through DOT because it’s a state road.

Kulpa said the two towns already did a walking audit of the boulevard. Some ideas Kulpa floated after that audit were reducing the speed limit, more crosswalks, restricting rights on red and widening the sidewalks with parking lanes on the boulevard.

“We can put together a plan, tell DOT here’s what we are looking for and then try to help them find the funding for it,” he said.

Concerns raised

Gail Gentry, who owns the Checkers restaurant, said a man was killed crossing the boulevard in August 2016 while her store was being built, and one of her employees was seriously injured when hit by a car in February 2017.

“It was horrific,” Gentry said.

She has also witnessed a lot of vehicle crashes. She calls the middle turn lane the “suicide lane” because that’s where pedestrians go to seek refuge to cross as cars zip by.

“What they do is whenever they’re crossing they’re just going to cross right in the middle where the bus stopped,” she said.

She believes the bus stops are in an unsafe location unless a traffic light and pedestrian crossing are added at the intersection connecting Thistle Avenue and Roger Chaffee Drive.

“We definitely need more traffic lights on this road,” she said.

“There’s so much traffic on this road, so besides a traffic light, I don’t know what the answer is going to be.”

Tom George, the director of public transit for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, said the bus stops are safe. Removing the bus stops in that location “would penalize the customers that do behave themselves in a safe and efficient manner.”

“I guess the question I would have is does that encourage enough unsafe behavior that warrants penalizing these neighbors that live in these areas directly adjacent to this stop?” George said.

“There’s always room for improvement, you can always try to make things fail safe, but then there’s also human behavior involved in it.”

Surdej, the DOT spokeswoman, said that installing a traffic signal “does not automatically solve your problem.”

“We’re seeing people that are getting hit at signalized intersections as well,” she said.

The lack of street lighting is something officials from both towns have discussed for years.

“There’s no lighting here,” Monaco said, pointing to the intersection where his sister was killed by Willowridge Drive.

“The lighting is a big factor.”

Kulpa said both towns are finally getting serious about lighting the boulevard. A $1 million project to add street lighting on a 3-mile stretch from the I-290 to the Niagara County border is expected to be bid out this winter. He hopes the project is completed by late 2019.

“The municipalities get control over lighting,” Kulpa said. “We can’t put a shovel in the ground or a stripe on the road, but we can do lighting, so we’re going to do what we can.”

The Citizens for Regional Transit, a local advocacy group, have raised issues about the pedestrian crossing signals. Douglas Funke, the president, said the crossing signal light at Willowridge Drive only conveys the cross time if the button is pressed before the traffic light turns green.

“When pedestrians press the button after the light turns green, the pedestrian signal count down timer is not initiated,” Funke wrote to the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council in February 2017.

In addition, Funke said pressing the pedestrian crossing button does not change the timing of the traffic light phase, meaning a pedestrian could wait for up to two minutes until the signal changes. 

“It’s one thing for cars to wait a couple of minutes, and quite another for pedestrians who are trying to catch a bus to so do, especially when they can see the bus coming,” Funke said in his letter.

“Unless pedestrians are able to change the signal timing cycle, some will be tempted to make a dash for it.”

Members of the Amherst Traffic Safety Board determined that the signals worked as designed, and told the advocacy group that only DOT can make changes to pedestrian and traffic signals.

Surdej, the DOT spokeswoman, said pedestrians need to be “responsible” and wait for the signal countdown to activate.

“Know your responsibilities as a motorist, as a bicyclist and as a pedestrian because we all have responsibilities for safety,” she said.

Speed is another concern.

The boulevard has a speed limit of 45 mile per hour. Data from an Amherst police department speed trailer showed that almost 20 percent of vehicles exceeded that speed limit over a three-day period this month.  

Surdej said engineers have reviewed the speed and have determined it is appropriate.

“Maybe slowing down traffic is not the answer,” she said.

“We have to look at other pieces. You can engineer as much as you want, but you have to use the facilities that are provided to you, and use them safely.”

In May, another pedestrian was killed trying to cross the boulevard by Willowridge Drive, close to where Monaco’s sister was killed.

As a result, DOT repainted 25 crosswalks to “enhance pedestrian safety.”

Assemblyman Robert Schimminger said the boulevard remains dangerous for pedestrians.

“I’ll call it the way I see it: DOT has not really focused on the pedestrian aspects of this highway,” Schimminger said.

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